The Peculiar Case of Liberalism in American Political History

17 Jun

How liberal were the founders?  Does the word “Lockean” capture it well?  What was the nature of any liberalism they embraced (or rejected)?  What had religion to do with any of it?  Insightful essay in Law and Liberty by James Patterson.  Excerpt:

Recently, political philosophers D. C. Schindler, Mark T. Mitchell, and Patrick Deneen have decided to assess the state of American liberalism and decide whether it is worth defending. In their view, it is not. In Freedom from Reality, Schindler argues that that liberalism has its foundation in the political philosophy of John Locke, and Locke’s philosophy is “diabolical” in its original Greek meaning of “divisive”—that Lockean liberty divides the individual from firm notions of the good, from other individuals, and from attachment to the created world. In The Limits of Liberalism, Mitchell laments how liberalism facilitates the abandonment of place and tradition, in which the autonomous individual senses no obligation to her homeland or even her family, but rather is a citizen of the world committed to personal consumption and identity politics. Finally, Deneen, in his sweeping Why Liberalism Failed, outlines how liberalism relies on pre-liberal institutions to further its ideological goals of technological, economic, and political liberation. Technological liberation frees the individual from physical limits of the body. Economic liberation frees the individual from constraints on satisfying any number of personal preferences or desires. Political liberation frees the individual from external authorities that condemn the improper use of technology or money.

Read together, the summary position would be this: the divisions inherent in Lockean liberty divided individuals from their world, giving them a false sense of freedom from their neighbors and compatriots, and directed them to dissolve communities for the sake of cosmopolitan ends of global capital and imperial redistribution.While Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen have offered forceful critiques of liberalism, their arguments have shortcomings, and one of them will be the subject of this essay. The shortcoming is methodological. One problem with political philosophy is the tendency to overstate the importance of ideas and understate the importance of other factors, especially contingency and the role of political actors. As a result, liberalism becomes, as Samuel Goldman has argued, a Geist and critiques of liberalism become Geistgeschicten. In other words, liberalism becomes a kind of trans-historical political actor driving the behaviors and events in the world, which then requires describing all those behaviors and events in terms of the advancement of liberalism. While liberal ideas have had a powerful influence on contemporary politics, they are simply insufficient and too diverse to explain either individuals or their responses to contingencies. To provide some needful correction, therefore, I will put the three authors in conversation with the work of Philip Hamburger, who has chronicled the relationship between liberalism as its developed among leading individuals and institutions in the American context.

However, Deenan and other Catholic scholars make a mistake when they attribute either absolutism and liberalism to Protestant Reformers.  See Mark David Hall’s article here.

Read the rest here

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